By Dave Ongie, Fiona Ongie and Mason Padelski
“This is not your father’s Hands-On! Museum.”
That’s the first thing that occurred to me as I ushered my daughter Fiona and her classmate Mason Padelski into the Gray Fossil Site for a sneak peek at the new Hands-On! Discovery Center. I spent many a day in a bygone era filling my cart with plastic groceries, tiptoeing through a wooden ark packed with snarling animals and sliding down into the dark oblivion of a coal mine. For my generation, a world of learning opened up to us through interactive play located behind an unassuming storefront in downtown Johnson City
When the decision was made to move Hands-On! to Gray, where it now shares space with the Fossil Site and a natural history museum, we here at the News & Neighbor quickly agreed the best way to introduce the new facility to our readers was to let you see it the same way many of you first saw the old facility – through the eyes of a child. So Fiona and Mason, both rising third graders at Lake Ridge Elementary, made their way through the Discovery Center with notebooks, pencils and their imaginations at the ready.
At first glance, Hands-On! is not entirely foreign for us old-timers. The Tesla Theatre, the Discovery Lab and the art center are among a handful of familiar attractions that made the trip over from Johnson City, and other tried-and-true features may return by the time the new Discovery Center is fully completed. But there is no doubt a new vision is at work inside the new facility.
My plan was to sit back and watch a new generation of kids embark on a journey of discovery, but I soon found myself pulled into several activities. According to Hands-On! executive director Andy Marquart, that is by design. The goal here is for kids and their parents to interact together.
We were barely through the entryway before Mason and Fiona were elbow deep in granulated paper scraps, building towering mountains and carving out deep lakes on an augmented reality tabletop.
“You can build a volcano,” Mason exclaimed as he pushed more paper into a towering peak. Meanwhile, Fiona was digging out a lake and pushing up an island in the middle. “I think kids will like it,” she said.
Kids? By that point I was almost too busy carving a fjord through the middle of Mason’s volcano to notice our two junior reporters bounding toward a room full of interactive science displays. The room on the first floor is a prime example of why Hands-On! has now been branded as a discovery center instead of a museum – being a spectator is not an option.
Over the next 45 minutes, Fiona, Mason and I used air pressure to race cars, tried to find the best way to get a paper cup to fly in an air current, searched for the most efficient sail to power a boat and built paper rockets, which we promptly launched.
While Fiona had enough discipline to take detailed notes in between activities, Mason and I pinballed from one activity to the next. He stopped just long enough to jot down a sentence or two while I snapped the occasional picture.
“What you do is pump the air up, and then you press the green button closest to you and race cars with your friends and family,” Fiona wrote of the car display. “This room is about air pressure, and it’s my favorite room in the place.”
“This room is about science,” Mason added. “You can make a rocket and race them.”
By the time we all made it upstairs to the room full of blocks, all three of us were seeing the place through the eyes of children. Notepads rested on the floor next to my camera as we banded together to build some sort of life-sized rolling vehicle. If it weren’t for a gentle reminder from Dr. Anthony Padelski – Mason’s father – that it was getting close to dinner time, we might still be there.
The Hands On! Discovery Center may not be your father’s Hands On! Museum, but there’s enough magic in the new place to bring out the kid in him.